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Obama Administration Eases Restrictions On Doctors Who Treat Opioid Addiction

The Obama administration is making it easier for people addicted to opioids to get treatment.

Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell announced new rules Wednesday to loosen restrictions on doctors who treat people addicted to heroin and opioid painkillers with the medication buprenorphine.

Doctors who are licensed to prescribe the drug, which is sold mostly under the brand name Suboxone, will be allowed to treat as many as 275 patients a year. That's almost triple the current limit of 100, and HHS estimated that as many as 70,000 more people may have access to the drug as a result.

"There are a number of ways we are trying to increase access to medication-assisted treatment," said Michael Botticelli, the director of national drug control policy, on a conference call with reporters. "This rule itself expands access and gets more physicians to reach more patients."

Suboxone is itself an opioid. It eases withdrawal symptoms and cravings, but doesn't make people high.

In 2000, Congress passed legislation that allows doctors who are trained and pass a test to offer office-based buprenorphine treatment. However, the same law capped how many patients a doctor can treat. These are the only medications that are under such restrictions.

In a related move, HHS said it is changing how it uses patient satisfaction surveys to determine Medicare payments. Burwell said some doctors and hospitals said they felt pressure to prescribe opioid painkillers because the surveys could affect their income.

"This rule eliminates the connection between pain management questions in the survey and payments to doctors and to hospitals," she said on the conference call.

Even as they announced the new rules, administration officials urged Congress to allocate more money to help pay for more addiction treatment programs.
House and Senate negotiators are considering a series of opioid treatment bills, but those proposals don't include all the funding President Obama requested.

Botticelli said many Democrats in the House have said they won't sign off on a compromise bill unless it includes the $1.1 billion that the president requested.

Botticelli said an average 129 people a day die from opioid overdoses.

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Alison Fitzgerald Kodjak is a health policy correspondent on NPR's Science Desk.